PARIS - The European Union said Friday that it would host an international donors conference in June for refugees from Syria and surrounding countries, even as the bloc criticized Turkey for using asylum-seekers as political pawns.
Announcement of the June 29-30 donors conference came during an EU foreign ministers meeting in Zagreb that addressed two related refugee crises. The first involved the roughly 1 million Syrians hoping to cross Turkey’s now-closed borders to safety, following an uptick in fighting in Idlib. It remains unclear whether their situation might ease under a new cease-fire in the region, agreed upon by Ankara and Moscow.
Europe's second migrant concern relates to the thousands now clamoring to cross Turkey’s borders with Greece and Bulgaria, which now are also closed. Their massive arrival over the past few days came after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country needed more EU support to handle its Syrian refugee burden.
Under a 2016 deal, the Europeans earmarked nearly $6.8 billion in assistance for Turkey to care for the refugees within its borders and block them from moving on to Europe. But Ankara says the EU has been slow to pay up, and the money goes to aid agencies rather than directly to the government.
The Europeans say they will not be blackmailed with the migrant surge. That also was the message sent by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.
“Encouraging refugees and migrants to attempt illegal crossing into the European Union is not an acceptable way for Turkey to push for further support of the European Union,” he said.
The migrants put the EU in a difficult spot. Those now clamoring at the frontier have helped to sharpen tensions between Turkey and EU member Greece. At the same time, it needs Turkey to prevent another major migrant influx, as happened a few years ago. And, like Greece, Turkey is a NATO ally.
So, along with criticizing Ankara, the Europeans are expressing sympathy for Turkey’s migrant dilemma.
“We understand the big pressure that Turkey is suffering," Borrell said. "Four million people. Four million refugees. It’s the biggest number of refugees that any country in the world is facing.”
The EU is considering increasing assistance to Turkey. But diplomats say Ankara first must fully honor its migrant deal with Europe.